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Cross-cultural intelligence

Written by  Jolien Linssen Tuesday, 07 June 2011 15:26

What is the key to business success in a globalised world, where people from a variety of countries meet and mingle? Along with sufficient language skills, IQ, EQ and perhaps gut feeling, what we need is cross-cultural intelligence. This according to Noi Nantawan Kwanjai in her doctoral dissertation, ‘Cross-cultural intelligence amid intricate cultural webs – A tale of the UnDutchables in the land of 1001 smiles’. 

If you think this sounds like the title of a novel, then meet Dr Kwanjai herself: a former freedom fighter and political prisoner from Thailand who lived in London, Hawaii and Singapore before marrying her Dutch husband and settling down in the Netherlands.

“What I wanted to find out is what happens when an employee has to operate in a foreign country, very different from his or her home country”, Kwanjai explains. This is a question that is deeply intertwined with her own experiences, given that she has been working abroad for most of her career. With her roots in Thailand and a Dutch spouse at home, the decision to take a closer look at cross-cultural interactions by focusing on five Dutch firms in Thailand seemed only logical.

“I asked the Dutch employees about their experiences with Thai people and vice versa”, Kwanjai says, “and found a lot of commonalities. For the Dutch it appears to be very hard to know how their Thai colleagues really feel, since they smile at everything and always say ‘yes’. Simultaneously, the Thais find the typical Dutch bluntness to be hurtful. I myself needed to learn to deal with this”, she admits. “For example, my husband was bothered by the odour of the spicy food I eat and in fact told me that it smelled awful. I took it as a Thai and was very upset by this.”

Four modes of ‘cultural crossing’

Where cultures differ, they can clash – and in today’s multicultural society, we are only too aware of this fact. According to Kwanjai, however, we have been focusing too much on this particular effect of cross-cultural interaction. Through observing and talking to both Dutch and Thai employees, she discovered more than the just opinions they hold about one another. At a deeper level, she found out that any cross-cultural interaction can take place in four distinct yet coexisting ways: the four modes of cultural crossing.

Besides the well-known clashing mode that leads to conflicts or fights, Kwanjai also identifies the reciprocal mode. “In certain business settings, it’s important for each culture to maintain its distinct characteristics. Think of a joint venture that needs to ensure that local knowledge and qualifications are present as well as international standards”, she says. “Yet sometimes a blend of cultures might be more favourable. The result of this is a new, hybrid culture, as can be seen in mixed marriages like my own. This I call the mode of unification. And finally, there’s the mode of variation, in which adaptation to the other takes place without affecting one’s core. One of the Dutch firms I visited seemed very Thai, in that the employees regarded one another and their boss as family members. Yet it was a Dutch firm through and through, using the Thai sense of family to enforce Dutch discipline.”

Cross-cultural intelligence

When working together with people from different backgrounds, the trick is knowing what mode would be most suitable to further your interests. Kwanjai: “You have to create the condition that makes the situation as effective as possible, which is something we unconsciously already do.” This, indeed, is what cross-cultural intelligence is all about. The better you are at moving towards the best mode for your purpose, the more intelligent you are at a cross-cultural level.

The good news is that cross-cultural intelligence is a social skill that can be trained. “Just like driving, it needs to be practised”, says Kwanjai. “The more you do it, the better you get at it. What it requires is an open mind, which is the ability to suspend yourself for a while and step into another’s shoes. This is the hardest thing to learn and in my view it would require cross-cultural training.”

The development of such training is in fact the next thing on Kwanjai’s to-do list. For those who are interested: registration would be open for anyone, not just for those in the business world. “One of the main findings of my study is that we in ourselves are a web of cultures. I define culture as a unique way of living shared by a group of people who have certain things in common. Next to being a Thai with Dutch citizenship, I’m part of the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University, and I’m female: I like to talk a lot, I’m emotional, caring and I like cooking.” On that note, it might be good to know that Kwanjai and her husband have solved the cooking issue, moving out of the clashing mode towards a more peaceful condition. Cross-cultural intelligence may also be the secret to a good marriage.

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